What's behind the great cassette tape revival?
I once stayed in the presidential suite of an old Estonian hotel. My favourite thing about the place was the way that it seemed to have been frozen in time at the precise moment that Estonia gained its independence from Russia. The windows were old and creaky. The meticulously updated editions of Who’s Who abruptly cut off at 1991. And best of all, the entertainment system contained a tape deck.
We laughed about it at the time – “What else will we find? A kerosene lamp?” – but now I’m starting to think that it might have been the hippest hotel I ever stayed in. Because apparently the hot new music format of the decade is, you guessed it, the cassette. The UK’s Official Charts Company just breathlessly announced that more cassettes have been sold in 2019 than in any year since 2004.
There is only one correct response to this news; what the hell do you people think you’re playing at? Tapes? Tapes, for crying out loud?! Listen, cassettes were the defining format of my youth. I’m 38; a bit too young for vinyl, slightly too old for CDs. When I first got into music, it was tapes or nothing. And let me tell you this: I have absolutely no nostalgia for cassettes whatsoever.
How could I? Tapes were terrible. They took up too much room. They sounded useless. They were prone to vomiting spools of their own guts up all over the insides of your tape player without warning. They’d get chewed up and break. Arguably worst of all, they didn’t let you skip songs. God, the man-hours I must have wasted suffering silently through endless half-baked filler tracks.
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I have a horrible feeling that the cassette resurgence has something to do with the vinyl revival. But the thing is that vinyl is actually quite good. Buy an album on vinyl and you’re presented with the best possible version of its cover art, and you have to treat it with enormous care to even listen to it. There’s a ritual to vinyl that will never stop being endearing; a hushed respect dictated by the fragility of the format.
But what’s the ritual with a tape? There isn’t one. You get a tape, you try and open its poxy jammed-up case, you throw it in a tape deck and force it shut, you have to spend two minutes rewinding it to the beginning because last time you listened to it you got bored halfway through track six. The whole thing was a colossal pain in the nuts.
Besides, who even has a tape deck? Where do you buy them? I bought a CD three years ago that I still haven’t listened to because I haven’t got a CD drive in my house, so God knows how long it’s been since I last saw a tape deck. A decade? More? I don’t even know what I’d do if I saw one any more. Try and toast a sandwich in it, probably.
That said, and I really do hate to admit this, I can sort of see the appeal of cassettes. The sheer old-fashioned stupidity of them meant that you were forced to consume albums in the way they were intended to be heard. Since you couldn’t skip through tracks, it meant that you really had to work on an album; you had to chew over the songs you didn’t like again and again until you were finally able to appreciate them for what they were.
And, really, what was more romantic that a mixtape? The sheer effort that went into making one – even if you were rich enough to afford high-speed dubbing – was monumental. You had to get 20 different albums lined up in the right place, before manually starting and stopping the deck over and over again and writing the name of the song as legibly as you could in a genuinely minuscule space.
So I get it. I do. In an era of permanent availability, a cassette feels like a small act of rebellion, a tiny anchor against the unstoppable tide of progress. If you’re one of the people who’ve caused the resurgence of the tape, you have my respect. Just know that I will never join because tapes are rubbish and I’m not an idiot.
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